Editor’s note: Considering how rapidly visual trends come and go, we felt it was time to update this post.
Outstanding visual content doesn’t require the complex process we imagery-impaired, design-phobes think it does. We’ve pulled together eight best practices and 27-plus handy tools so you can up the quality quotient of your visual content, and give your brand a distinct and powerful look – without having to spend a ton of time at the drawing board (literally). We’ve broken the tools into four categories to make it even easier – content image creation and editing; data visualization; video; and games, animation, interactivity, and multimedia.
8 best practices
- Align your visual story with your content marketing strategy
Making an image and hoping for the best is not an effective strategy. As Buddy Scalera explains, your brand competes with millions of pictures, movies, and stories every day, it needs a smart, flexible strategy in order to reach your targeted audience.
Chuck Frey shares the visual content mistakes to avoid, as experts offer advice on what questions to ask to ensure your visuals further the business’ marketing goals:
- What are we trying to accomplish with our visual content?
- Who is our audience and what content do they crave?
- What problems does our organization solve?
- How can we best position our business or brand and create a consistent look and feel?
- What is our clearly defined vision of who we are and what makes us unique? How can we communicate those messages in a compelling way?
- What metrics will we use to measure success? For which terms should this image appear in search engine results?
GE Transportation’s interactive trip calculator aligns with its content marketing strategy to convey the value of hybrid locomotives.
- Be authentic
Tap into your audience’s emotions and say something significant and relevant. Dawn Papandrea discusses how to nail visual storytelling, recommending using images to articulate your brand personality and form a meaningful connection with your readers rather than overloading them with pop-culture images, memes, or anything that doesn’t resonate with your brand.
Honey Maid demonstrated the power of love by spelling it with printed copies of negative tweets the brand received.
- Avoid stock photography
While stock images may save time, they can’t tell as compelling a story of your brand – and your customers – as custom images can. Buddy Scalera suggests taking photos of your team doing interesting things as a better alternative – and if they interact genuinely with your products, the images will be even better.
Buddy and Darth Vader are ready to help you embrace your visual story.
- Be helpful
Michele Linn points out that visual tips, checklists, and how-to images perform well – particularly on social media – because they are designed to help or inspire your customers.
- Repurpose written content as visuals
Content marketers can adapt their most popular written content into compelling visuals, like infographics, charts, or checklists. As Cathy McPhillips explains in the June issue of Chief Content Officer, this an excellent way to draw fresh attention to your evergreen content in an easier-to-digest format.
- Use your fans’ content
Your fans already like their own images, why not put them to good use? Coca-Cola repurposes cleverly solicited user-generated images from its Flickr page into engaging Pinterest boards.
- Stay on brand
Keep your visuals as brand-consistent as possible, including your use of corporate colors and logos. The best visual content has a consistent design motif – you can tell what brand it belongs to in an instant.
Content Marketing Institute logos look like they are from the same family, yet each is distinct.
- Customize visual content to its delivery platform
Don’t push the same image to every platform. Each social media channel has different image size requirements. Also, each network’s audience is unique. Respect the platform’s standards of communication everywhere the content will appear.
27+ handy tools
The above best practices should make it easier to understand what quality visual content creation entails; however, producing that content on an ongoing basis still presents a challenge for many businesses. Though there’s no substitute for the expertise and skill of a dedicated professional designer, the visual content tools I’ve compiled below may be useful when those resources aren’t available or they may even help you branch out in new visual directions you thought you’d never be able to explore.
Content image creation and editing
Whether you are designing custom images from scratch for your blog, posting photos from your corporate retreat to your Instagram page, or looking to give your brand’s content a fresher, more cohesive look across all your channels, these image-creation and editing tools can help you get the job done.
Not ready to take on the expense and steep learning curve of working with software like Adobe’s Photoshop or InDesign? Try Canva. It strips away the complexity and narrows the features of those professional tools to bring quality design capabilities while lowering the barriers to creating standout visual content and imagery.
This online tool enables users to take a snapshot of their screens and mark up the image with text, arrows, circles, boxes, and more.
Content shop entrepreneur Julia McCoy suggests that small-business owners whose options are limited by a tight budget turn to GIMP to create and edit stunning visuals: “This Adobe Photoshop-like tool is free and fairly easy to use,” she says.
From the creators of productivity mainstay Evernote comes Skitch. Similar to Awesome Screenshot, Skitch enables users to grab screenshots or access photos, and edit, annotate, or add to them using a simple palette of drawing, design, and annotation tools. It’s particularly handy for highlighting sections of images for use in demonstrations and tutorials.
Looking to give your online slide decks and presentations a more professional look and feel? SlideShare has partnered with Haiku Deck to help users create eye-catching visual decks – even if they don’t have a professional designer on hand. SlideShare account holders can access this tool in user settings under “Apps.”
Create free photo collages for your content or social media efforts with this easy-to-use tool.
The very purpose of images like charts, graphs, icons, word clouds, infographics, and other data visualization techniques is to accurately distill large amounts of data into a format that’s easy to consume and remember. But if the thought of building a pie chart makes you queasy, try soothing your anxiety with these visualization aids:
Simply select a template and plug in your data, images, links, and branding, and Infogr.am builds an embeddable graphic in a wide range of formats that are easy to publish and share. Premium options and API integrations also are available to help you take your visualizations to a more sophisticated level.
Piktochart lets you make simple, yet professional-looking infographics with drag-and-drop ease. The service also offers unlimited use of its customization assets, and is free.
Regular #CMWorld Twitter chat contributor Jade Phillips suggests using Venngage to create beautiful infographics, reports, and data visualizations. Hundreds of pictograms, maps, and icon tools are available in the Venngage library, and you can upload your own photos to customize your designs.
Animated videos created in PowToon.
With marketers’ easy, affordable access to equipment like webcams, smartphones, GoPro cameras, and the ubiquitous selfie stick, the barriers to entering the video content game have pretty much been obliterated. But it still takes work to weave those amateur assets into a compelling story that will benefit your brand. Fortunately, these tools can help take some of the pain out of the process.
Learn more: Start Smart, Scale Up, and Stand Out With Video
The gold standard for digital design and layout, Adobe’s full suite of robust tools can help you complete any visual content project, including video. In our April 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer, video and radio producer Robyn Johnson had this to say: “You can round trip flawlessly. I can send a video from Premiere into After Effects to do special fix, and when it’s done the changes are right on my editing timeline. It’s perfect for creating quality videos necessary for the B2B audience.”
Content marketing strategist David Erickson revealed to Chief Content Officer that he is a fan of working with Camtasia for creating ad-hoc and product-demonstration videos, as well as for turning marketing presentations into videos: “It is ideal for demonstrating software because it will record on-screen activity while simultaneously recording voice-over commentary. It is also a great tool for turning a static PowerPoint presentation into video by adding voice-over commentary.”
GoAnimate lets you create animated video using simple drag-and-drop tools. The platform automatically syncs your narration to the animated figures on screen. Use its animation libraries — with tens of thousands of assets, representing hundreds of industries and occupations — or import your own audio, image, video and flash files.
GoAnimate’s animation interface.
Think animation is only for the experts or those who have expensive equipment? In their presentation from Content Marketing World Sydney in 2015, Jodi Sourini and Lynn Nickels admitted they include PowToon in their content marketing toolbox, describing it as a great, free visual tool that lets users create animated videos and presentations using a PowerPoint-like interface.
Lorna Probert of Aardman Animation (home of the wildly popular Wallace and Gromit films) told CCO that she’s a fan of using Rapt Media, as she finds the system to be flexible, straightforward, and easily embeddable into client websites. “The interactive videos through Rapt allow the audience to actively make decisions, helping us create a more engaging experience and gain more insight about the interests and preferences of our customers in the process,” she said.
“VideoScribe makes creating white-board-drawing videos so easy. It looks like we paid someone thousands of dollars to create a hand-drawn video, but it took us just 30 minutes. You can even upload your own images for it to draw, and add voice-overs and music directly in the software,” Louise Hendon said in the October 2015 issue of CCO.
Looking to produce quality video on a shoestring budget? In the October 2015 issue of CCO, Ryan O’Donnell had this to say of Wideo: “The easy-to-use tool offers good transition options and allows for easy image importing. The timeline is easy to learn, and the templates act as a good starting point for most simple, low-cost video needs.”
Interactivity and multimedia
Who is Your CMWorld Spirit Guide quiz, created with Interact.
While blog posts, charts, and videos are powerful content marketing mainstays, with a little ingenuity, you can take your visual content in some exciting and unexpected directions. If you are looking to experiment with your content formats as a means of grabbing a greater share of attention, the following are some tools that can help you add a bit of innovation and interactivity to your arsenal.
Create games for iOS, Android, and HTML5 using a drag-and-drop interface – no coding required.
Each of these tools gives marketers the power to easily create and design their own surveys, quizzes, and other interactive activities for their websites or social media pages.
Woobox helps you easily create powerful contests, sweepstakes, coupons, and more to grow your fans and amplify your marketing.
Bubblr helps users create comic-strip-like “photo-novels” by adding thought bubbles to a series of photos selected from their Flickr accounts.
Of the dozens of “upload-your-photos, get-a-video” sites, Animoto is among the largest; it has a wealth of themes, a slick UI, and great ease of use.
Brainshark helps businesses to engage readers more deeply in the PowerPoint presentations and slide decks they share by enabling them to add video, voice-overs, music, and more.
ZooBurst is a digital storytelling tool that lets users create online pop-up books. ZooBurst authors can share books with readers using a simple hyperlink, and books can easily be embedded in any website or blog, allowing authors to provide their own contextual framework to their stories.
ThingLink enables users to annotate their image and video content with notes and rich media links – great for marking up graphics with links to your additional content resources on the topic at hand.
LookBooks help marketers hold on to attention by creating customizable visual content experiences that can accommodate multiple rich-media formats.
See an example: Visual Content Marketing LookBook: 25 Ideas
Of course, these tools are just the tip of the iceberg – there are plenty of other solutions that content marketers can explore to help take their visual content creation efforts from a time-consuming necessity to a fun and engaging process. If I missed one of your favorite helpers, let us know in the comments.
Please note: No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
To expand your visual content knowledge and skills, you can learn more in CMI’s content hub on the subject.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute